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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2005/10/12
by Mike Gruenberg

Saving CBGB’s

Politicians and teachers often tell us that if we hope to be successful in the future we need to understand our past. Learning about our past will truly help us to understand how to cope with all the future personal landmines all of us will most certainly endure in our lifetimes. Naturally, we hope that by studying and understanding the causes of war, poverty and disease we can guide ourselves accordingly to avoid those pitfalls as we build a better society.
There are however, many different types of history to learn from. For example, visual history is also a great teacher of the past. To this day, I am saddened that the original and unique Penn Station in New York City was demolished in favor of a glass and steel structure whose character and style are simply nondescript. I will always be grateful to Jackie Kennedy Onassis for spearheading the campaign to save Grand Central Station from the developers’ wrecking ball. To this day, I marvel at the beauty of that building every time I go through there to catch a train or meet a friend at the clock by the information booth.
In our country’s history, we look to structures that housed famous politicians, authors and scientists as an affirmation that we are grateful for their roles in our past. We proudly preserve certain places like Pearl Harbor where significant events took place so that others may learn from the tragedies of the past and not repeat those events ever again.
Musical history is important too. Much of that is forever captured on vinyl, tape and CD’s. As technologies improve, more of our musical heritage is being restored on a variety of media. But what about the buildings that housed the venues where we went when we first heard our favorite performers? Recently, I saw the Martin Scorcese documentary about Bob Dylan. Much of the footage in that film shows a young Dylan walking the streets of Greenwich Village New York in and out of coffee houses. Virtually all of the venues shown in the film no longer exist. Since I spent a fair bit of time in that area at that time, it got me to think about our musical past in relation to the structures that have been demolished.
As a teenager, I spent time in Greenwich Village at such places as the Nightowl, Cafha!, Tin Angel and the Village Gate. I’m pretty sure none of those venues still exist. In my college years, I spent much of my time seeing musical groups at the Fillmore East. It no longer exists. Fortunately, the Fillmore West in San Francisco continues to be open and seems to be doing well although the latest lineup of attractions bore little resemblance to the Fillmore in it’s heyday when groups like the Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin seemed to always be there. After the Fillmore East closed, I spent a considerable amount of time seeing shows at the Bottom Line in New York. I will always remember the night I saw folk legend, Donovan perform there. He kept trying to play new material, which annoyed the audience who seemingly wanted him only to play his old stuff. The Bottom Line was a great place to see live music. There was a personal connection between the artist and the audience since the room was relatively small in size. It was a great place to see and hear music. This is the club where Bruce Springsteen rose to prominence when a rock critic at the performance proclaimed that Bruce was the "future of rock ‘n’ roll." The Bottom Line was in arrears with its rent and now it too, no longer exists.
When a place like the Bottom Line closes, it means that another little piece of our musical history and heritage are fading away. Now I am not na enough to believe that in every case where a musical club closes that there was an evil developer salivating as to how much money could be made if the property were converted to a department store. However, I am old enough to know that there are ways to save properties that have historical significance. I guess what troubles me most is that there is no one who has stood up and much like what Jackie Kennedy did for Grand Central Station to put themselves on the line to preserve significant structures of our musical history. That’s why I was so pleased to see that another musical landmark, CBGB’s in New York may not go the way of the Fillmore East and Bottom Line.
CBGB’s, located in New York’s’ Bowery is hallowed ground to anyone who had the pleasure to see and hear groups the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads. Virtually every punk-rock act in the 70’s performed there. Authors, musicians, designers all made their way at one time to CBGB’s. It was a hot, noisy room that had a weird smell, but it was the home to all the greatest punk-rock groups we heard in those years.
Now it looks like CBGB’s may have to close its doors due to some contractual difficulties with their landlord. Little Steven from the E-Street Band and The Sopranos along with David Byrne of the Talking Heads and others are working with the owners of the club to somehow work out a deal to save CBGB’s.
Part of the problem with the survival of CBGB’s revolves around the gentrification of the neighborhood. Located in the Bowery, which could be previously described as rundown, the area now is beginning to boast new buildings with multi-million dollar prices. These structures are pushing current residents out. Clearly, CBGB’s does not fit the developers’ plans of what the neighborhood should look like to attract all those buyers of expensive condos that need to shop in upscale boutiques.
I’m not here to debate the merits of the lawsuits filed by the owners of CBGB’s and/or the developers. Ultimately, our legal system will make that determination. I am however hopeful that an agreement can be reached to keep the club open. I am also gratified to see that some very successful musicians are taking it upon themselves to stand up for an issue. History always lives in our mind, but it’s always a bit more realistic to see where that history took place. If the time ever comes where I will be fortunate enough to have grandchildren, I would like the opportunity to take them to the musical places I enjoyed as a young person. It would mean so much more to take them to the actual CBGB’s where I saw Patti Smith perform many years ago as opposed to saying that they should imagine that the Versace boutique they are looking at is standing on the spot which was the birthplace of punk rock.

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